Emphasis on Storytelling in Horror Games

Horror games have forever suffered from weak or nonexistant stories, boring characters with cliche motivations, the exact same setting with the exact same enemies... it is time for a change. What we can learn from other forms of horror of mature mediums.

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I am a huge horror fan – my favorite author is Stephen King, I love horror movies (the original Scream is my favorite, above Blair Witch Project and Halloween), and I tend to embrace being afraid (I’m a freak like that). But for some reason, horror games have kind of fallen short for me. I think developers realize this, and I have definitely seen some movements in the right direction (I’ve seen some in the wrong direction too), but overall, I have been most disappointed with the stories in horror games.

Why would a horror game be released with a lackluster story!? That is one of the major attributors to the horror, yet it is often just used as an excuse for the weird goings-on. I think horror games could tell great stories through the gameplay, which could revitalize the genre, and make games scarier, even after the player puts the controller down.

There tend to be a few cliché stories in horror games. First, there is the searching story (most of the Silent Hill games). In this game, your character spends the entire game searching for a girlfriend/daughter/whatever. It has been overused in all genres. In Mario, this type of story is used because the designers want everything to be simple, so as to focus on the core gameplay, but that is not what designers are doing with horror games. Why do they use this rehashed story? Sure, it may have other details attached to it, little twists, but there are so many other stories that we can tell with the horror genre.

Another cliché is to not include any real story at all. Basically, a bunch of weird crap is going on, and for some reason, you have to fight it. It sets up the gameplay, but doesn’t contribute to the experience at all. Although we can still scare the player in a horror game with this weak or absent story, we cannot horrify the player.

This is something that many horror writers can do exceptionally well – horrifying the reader. Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe can freak the reader out, without the tool of cheap scares in their toolbox. How do they do this? Well, so far, psychological horror novels have been FAR better at psychologically scaring their audience than psychological horror games. The written word has an advantage, though, as we can see through the character and into their mind.

In a scarecrow scene in Batman: Arkham Assylum, you walked down a hallway, a lurking dread inside of you. You looked around for the Scarecrow, who was nowhere to be found, when you morphed into a young child, a young Bruce Wayne. A blink of the eyes, and you are now in an alleyway. A gunshot goes off, and you realize where you are – the past. Your mother screams, and her screams are only hushed by another gunshot to the chest. The shooter flees, leaving you alone with the corpses which used to be your parents so very long ago. And there stands a young child, looking down upon his parents, now truly alone.

This was an amazing scene, and didn’t even include any gameplay. Shivers ran through me as I played through it, and for the first time I truly understood the backstory of Batman – as I turned the young boy away from his dead parents. In every iteration of Batman’s origins, I have never felt this impacted. This is what horror games can do. We can read into the past, the soul, of characters, learn their motivations, their fears. Story is important, and characters are important to story.

So what kind of characters should we create? They should be identifiable, yet fresh. The player should want them to succeed from the heart, know them, and yet, not quite understand all of them. There is a quirk to the protagonist, something strange – the unknown. But the motivations should go beyond, “rescue the girlfriend”. Read some Stephen King, and you’ll get some ideas.

I’d also like to see some new themes, some new settings, for horror games to take the genre somewhere it hasn’t gone before. Games like Silent Hill have done the isolated creepy town, games like Resident Evil have done the zombies, games like Clock Tower have done the haunted mansion, and… well, I guess almost all horror games have included at least one of these three topics. The most original horror game I have seen in years was Dead Space, and it is one of very few. How about a game that takes place in a POPULATED town that includes interesting characters, events… there’s a lot you could do with an open-world horror game like this. A game in a prison. A detective-horror game. Spiders. Think of the stories that come to mind just by switching a setting or subgenre. People wonder why the horror genre is failing, and I look back and see a long list of copy-cat game series that have barely stepped outside the back door, while horror novels have out the back and through the cornfield.

Horror games have a LONG way to go before they can match the horror felt after reading The Stand or watching The Exorcist (more well known as film than novel), and I think improving the stories we tell are the best way to catch up to where literature and film has gone. Before touching a horror game as a designer, one should be familiar with works of the genre across all mediums (the Naughty Dog developers watched many movies and read many tales before designing Uncharted, one of the best series of all time). Our industry is an infant compared to the other industries, and there’s a lot we could learn with their progress, from Dracula and Frankenstein to The Shining and Silence of the Lambs, from Resident Evil to whatever lies ahead. The horror genre of games has long been seen as a mindless, primitive genre, but I think we can transform to the smartest genre of games, which it has the potential to become.

I plan on writing more specific articles about horror games in the future; this is supposed to serve as a more general introduction, so tune back in for more later on! If you dare...

So, what are your thoughts? Favorite horror games, movies, films? Horror game ideas? Thoughts on the upcoming Silent Hill: Downpour?

This article was posted on Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location:

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